Derbyshire Cordwainer Philip Taylor
PUBLISHED: 00:18 14 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:52 20 February 2013
Cordwainer Philip Taylor's move to Brough has brought a once common craft back to life in the heart of the Peak District. Mike Smith reports
Cordwainer sounds like one of those obscure and archaic words that used to feature on the quiz show Call My Bluff. Some readers may well be familiar with the term but I must confess that I had no idea of its meaning until I carried out preliminary research for an interview with Philip Taylor, a man who is proud to call himself, not simply a cordwainer, but The Cordwainer
An internet search revealed that the American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger often adopted the pseudonym Cordwainer Smith, but this piece of information turned out to be nothing more than an entertaining misleader. Further delving told me that one part of the City of London is known as the Cordwainer Ward, because it was once a centre where specialist workers plied their trade under the auspices of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. Their work is commemorated in a sculpture in Watling Street, the principal thoroughfare of the ward. It depicts a craftsman making a pair of shoes.
According to some experts, Cordwainer is derived from Cordovan, a type of leather that is produced in Cordoba and is used by shoemakers based in that region of Spain. As Philip was at pains to point out when I met him at his workshop in the hamlet of Brough, in the heart of the Hope Valley, the term should not be confused with cobbler: a cordwainer makes shoes, whereas a cobbler repairs them. Philip has been engaged in the making of shoes for 40 years and the story of how he came to take up his life-long work is a heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity.
When he was just two years old, Philip was diagnosed with polio. The disease left him with physical disabilities and a permanent need to wear orthopaedic shoes. To make matters worse, he had been placed in care after his parents had split up. Philip missed out on mainstream education and was placed in a residential special school, but he looks back on his time at Staplefield Place School, in Haywards Heath, as a positive experience. He says, The school was great at fostering an independent spirit in children with special needs.
At the age of eleven, Philip went to Treloar College, in Hampshire, which caters for young people with physical disabilities. The college combines general education with vocational training and even arranges competitive sports fixtures with mainstream institutions. As well as relishing the sporting opportunities, Philip responded to the inspirational teaching of Peter Shaw, who had spotted that his pupil was good with his hands. Thanks to Peters encouragement and expert guidance, he quickly acquired the specialist skills that enabled him tomake a complete pair of shoes that catered for his own orthopaedic needs.
Following some work during one summer vacation for John Lobb, Philip was given the chance to take up a permanent job with Britains most famous maker of exclusive shoes, but he declined this wonderful offer because it would have meant moving to Plymouth and leaving home, where he had finally been reunited with his mother. Instead, armed with a recommendation from Peter Shaw, an O-level in Art and a City and Guilds qualifications in pattern cutting, hand-sewn construction and shoemaking, he landed a job as an orthopaedic shoemaker at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, Middlesex.
After working at the hospital for six years, Philip moved to S Reed & Co, an orthopaedic shoemaking company based in Blackburn, where he was able to work very closely with patients. He then spent seven years as a workshop manager with Prince and Fletcher, a firm of Manchester shoemakers, before moving to Liverpool when the company was taken over by C. S. Bullen. Although he had a guaranteed income and the satisfaction of being the head of a department that made shoe-uppers, Philip began to toy with the idea of going it alone. In 1996, he finally took the plunge and set up his own business as a manufacturer of bespoke footwear for people with disabilities.
From small beginnings, which entailed working in the conservatory of his home in Prescot, Philip moved to premises in Leigh and built up a business that has become the market leader in bespoke orthopaedic shoes. When he was not making shoes at his workshop, Philip ran seminars at Salford University for trainee orthotists and promoted his industry, as he still does, by running seminars, conferences and workshops. He even found the time, not only to be a director of his beloved Football Conference team Leigh RMI, but also to form a band called Whiskey in the Jar, which still performs regularly with Philip as the lead singer. It was thanks to these many and varied activities that The Cordwainer of Leigh became the subject of a profile that was shown on Granada TV in 2006.
A few months ago, Philip decided to re-locate his business to the Peak District hamlet of Brough. It was there that I spoke to him about his approach to producing a pair of bespoke shoes. The process begins with a meeting with his client, either in the workshop or in the clients home, which could be anywhere in the country. He makes a cast of his clients feet in order to make a shoemakers last which he will use exclusively for the manufacture of that particular pair of shoes. Once he has produced a rubber mock-up of the uppers, he arranges for another fitting as a prelude to making the uppers in leather. Finally, the soles and heels are added and the client is presented with a pair of shoes that are stylish, but functional and guaranteed to bring about enormous improvements in mobility, comfort and wellbeing.
Philip said: I have produced at least 1,500 pairs of boots and shoes over the years, but I still go home at the end of each day with a sense of achievement because I know that I am changing lives. I have had clients who had been forced to cut holes in their previous shoes to relieve pressure on their feet, lots of diabetic patients who were in need of shoes with a weight-bearing cradle and even people who might have spent the rest of their life in a wheelchair if they had not been fitted with appropriate footwear.
As well as being convenient for Philips wife, who works as a solicitor in Sheffield, the move to Brough has brought The Cordwainer to a region with a tradition of shoemaking. A century ago, there were some 15 shoe manufacturers in the villages of Eyam, Calver and Stoney Middleton, some producing boots for miners, quarrymen and farmers, others making lighter shoes for women and children. Philip is busily delving into the history of the local industry and has already made contact with Eyam Historical Society as part of his research.
Lennons, founded in Stoney Middleton by William Lennon in 1904, is still engaged in the manufacture of boots and Philip has the satisfaction of knowing that shoe-making for people with disabilities will be maintained in Brough for many years to come by his son James, who now works alongside his father after a spell of dairy farming in New Zealand. Perhaps this particular part of the Peak District should be re-named Derbyshires Cordwainer Ward.